A shocking day, alright.
A day on which an unelected government, acting as a proxy for international finance capital, began its dismembering of Higher Education; on which the State set hundreds* of riot cops and mounted police on students, trade unionists and schoolchildren; and on which I returned home, having pondered the media narrative that would emerge from the day’s events, to see the BBC, on television, radio, and online, in full, shrill battle cry against the “violence” of the protesters.
I have arrived home, having secured my release from the Parliament Square kettle only by agreeing to being filmed by the police. I knew that today would pit our best, brightest and most passionate against the Full Force™ of the neoliberal state. I could feel an ugliness in the air, the implacability of the markets haunting us like a wife beater’s menace. The vote would pass. Today would not end well for our wonderful, brave, young people.
The day started brightly enough: crisp December sunshine and a biting chill; TV crews outnumbering protesters as the noon assembly deadline loomed; a welcome, warm feeling of solidarity as our numbers swelled, the chatter and laughter rose, and the march on Westminster - eventually - began.
We made speedy progress through Bloomsbury, down Kingsway, across Aldwych and down the Strand to Trafalgar Square. The marchers’ band gave us a jaunty rhythm. Office workers and tourists stopped, smiling, to photograph our procession; builders in their Dayglo vests took the opportunity to eye up the pretty female students in our number.
As we passed through Trafalgar Square, and approached the Cradle of Democracy, some straws in the wind. The riot police blocking access to Whitehall; the nervous scurrying of the police in response to unfurling black and red Anarchist flags in The Mall; and then, as we were funnelled into Parliament Square, the suspicion of a trap. Suddenly we had nowhere else to go.
Masses of riot cops, with vehicles, blocked all exits from the square. Some of us started to filter onto College Green (leafy spot beloved of political reporters, scene of countless set-piece interviews with ministers), only to be confronted by nervous police astride decidedly, and alarmingly, skittish horses. They tried to force us back. Back where? There was nowhere to go. Within moments, through sheer weight of numbers, we were able to rush through. But the tone had been set.
Over the next hour or two, things settled down as Parliament Square descended into some sort of music-free Reading Festival (in fact, a young girl would later characterise it as “like a really shit Glastonbury”). Occasionally, we would hear roars from the perimeter, near the Houses of Parliament, and see a hail of sticks fly in the direction of the armoured riot police. But it all seemed largely, and incomprehensibly, polite and middle class until 3pm, when the schools tipped out and the teenagers - hitherto conspicuous by their absence - arrived to drop the average age of the crowd by several years, to put some fire in our belly and to liven things up.
It was at this point that the cavalry charge by the police started. Very frightening, when we were all set running in terror, as police horses suddenly charged into the square from Victoria Street. Darkness quickly fell. Music began, again, to blare from battery-powered, bass-heavy sound systems. The teenagers held impromptu dance halls around the square. More fires were lit, and quickly became magnets for everyone as the temperature plummeted. Remember, as you see the outraged media reports of the damage in Parliament Square tomorrow, that there was nowhere else to go. We could have proceeded to the NUS/UCU rally further along the river. But the police corralled us instead in Parliament Square.
(Incidentally, Paul Mason’s excellent reporting confirms a thought that occurred to me at that point: that the young protesters, from the poorer outskirts of the capital, are reminiscent of noone so much as the banlieue protesters in Paris several years ago, as documented in The Coming Insurrection.)
What had seemed, for a while, to be a protest that had run out of ideas once stuck in the square, took on a new energy and unpredictability with the arrival of the teenagers and the fall of darkness. Around Parliament Square (Parliament Square!), bonfires shone out from the freezing darkness. Bass and dubstep shook the air. People laughed, and chatted, while groups took to draping NO CUTS tapestries over HM Treasury, and spraying graffiti on statues of generals and prime ministers. A café under a gazebo served tea to grateful protesters queueing patiently. The smell of woodsmoke was overwhelmed by the acrid fumes billowing from the fire where a plastic structure had been set alight, shrouding Big Ben in clouds of black smoke. And then came the vote.
It came as no surprise to me that the Government won its vote on tripling tuition fees, although the initial maths being passed among the crowd did seem to suggest more Lib Dem abstentions than votes against. But the pain and fury among the students - freezing, passionate - was as evident as it was heartbreaking. This unelected, unelectable cabinet of millionaires had persuaded the Commons to ignore an unprecedented wave of public anger and concern over a key plank of its policy. And sent heavily armoured goons out to apply state-sanctioned violence to those forced to suffer the consequences.
Is any of this being reported by the media? With the honourable exception of Paul Mason, the press’ narrative is fictional at worst; grossly biased at best; and overwhelmingly focused on a trivial inconvenience to a couple of bloated recipients of public largesse.
Remember: we are everywhere. And this is only the beginning.
*Correction: the Metropolitan Police have since confirmed that 3,000 officers were deployed
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